By Tim Woodruff
Attorney (non-active), California and Florida, USA
The governing Constitution of Costa Rica is arguably the country’s greatest asset. The rights guaranteed by the State to all citizens, residents, and inhabitants, are full and all-enveloping, like a warm fuzzy blanket on a cold day. Good faith and fine moral principles of the highest order shine from every clause. The love — for lack of a more comprehensive descriptor — of the legislators for the country and its people comes through a wealth of privileges and protections guaranteed by the State.
But first, where did it all originate? The current Constitution, last amended in 2015, was anointed the supreme law of the land in 1949 by then President José Figueres. He wanted to ensure a lasting peace at the end of the Costa Rican Civil War of 1948; and thanks in large part to the newly re-written Constitution, he certainly succeeded!
The document was adapted from the 1871 Constitution which previously governed. The overall system of laws is known as the Napoleonic or Civil Code. The French codified it in the late 18th century, from laws which were in turn based on ancient Roman legal principles. By contrast, US law is mostly based on a competing (non-Roman) system of judge-made legal precepts called “the common law,” inherited from Great Britain. Even so, the common law borrowed many of the Latin legal principles; and in fact, much of the law practiced today in the US still employs the same Latin terms in use since before the birth of Christ. For example, even the familiar phrase “Miranda warning” is half-Latin, due to “miranda” meaning “worthy of admiration” in Roman times. More to the point, the right to petition for “habeus corpus” is 100% Latin. Other well-known Latin legal terms include amicus curiae (“friend of the court”); affidavit (“he has sworn”); bona fide (“in good faith”); and caveat emptor (“buyer beware”) – and that’s only a few of them from A to C!
I graduated from Tulane Law school in New Orleans, Louisiana. I then practiced trial law for a decade in San Francisco, California, and was also admitted to practice law in Florida. Along the way I was forced, pretty much at gunpoint, to study the constitutions of three US states, as well as the US federal Constitution. And, yes, they all afford the ample protections to which we US citizens have become accustomed.
But I was blown away by the grand vision of the Costa Rican Constitution. Of course in practice no system is perfect. But through these laws the Costa Rica ruling class made a supreme effort to pull the country together so that all could prosper through thick and thin. Not just the burghers of the upper middle classes, but everyone, is covered.
In a world so full of dictators and wannabes, it is a great privilege, literally, to live under such clear and well thought-out rules, protections — and, naturally, obligations. For there can be no functioning civil society without corresponding duties, and Costa Rica balances them all out.
But instead of me telling you why I think it’s so great, let me quote it to you so you can make up your own mind.
The Constitution is perhaps most famous for article 12, which abolished the military. Less renowned, but still widely admired are the following clauses: “The State’s job is to ensure the welfare of every inhabitant of the country,” and “everyone has a right to a clean environment;” and “the State will guarantee, preserve, and defend those rights.” Wow!
Other rights and protections:
- “The Republic is a popular, representative democracy”;
- “The three governing branches are the Executive, The Legislative, and the Judicial”;
- “The government and its officials are responsible solely to the people whom they serve”;
Collective Rights and Obligations (applicable to society as a whole)
- “Human rights are inviolable”;
- “Private property is inviolable”;
- “Everyone is entitled to a clean and ecologically sound environment; and the State guarantees and shall defend that right”;
- “Everyone has the right to access to potable water as a basic human right”;
- “Family and marriage are the basis of society and will be protected by the State”;
- “Women and minor children get special State protection”;
- “Every worker has a right to a minimum salary, and a 48 hour maximum work week;”
- “Private acts that don’t hurt third parties or damage the public or moral order are outside the purview of the law”;
- “No Army is allowed; nobody has to fight against their will”;
- “Universal free education for all children through high school”; “free trade schools and college too”;
- “Every worker is entitled to a package of Social security protections, including comprehensive health benefits covering also the family, worker insurance, thirteenth month of salary every year, vacation, one day off a week, and other benefits mandated by law;”
- “Private schools are allowed, subject to inspections by the State”;
- “Foreigners may not interfere in elections or labor unions”;
- “Catholicism is the official state religion, and is supported by the State, but all religions may worship freely and without discrimination”;
- “Specific religions or religious figures may not be used for political purposes;”
- “Foreigners have the same rights and obligations as citizens, save for exceptions made by Law and herein”;
- “No kangaroo courts or retroactive laws”;
- “No cruel or degrading punishments”;
- “No monopolies except those established by national referendum”;
- “The jobless shall be taken care of and restored to the working world if possible”;
- “CR shall be safe harbor for all political refugees, and if by judicial order they must be deported, it can never be to the country where they were persecuted;”
- “The state cannot execute anyone, or sentence anyone to longer than 50 years with time off for good behavior” (sometimes they are too kind??);
- “Public officials, both elected and appointed, are mere “depositories” of State authority, and must not abuse the trust placed in them;”
- “Everyone is the same before the law and no one can be discriminated against”; AND
- Whatever is not prohibited expressly by law is legal.”
Personal rights (applicable to all persons within Costa Rica)
- “You have the right to due process”;
- “Your home is your castle, and cannot be entered without due process, i.e., judge’s order or alleged hot commission of a crime”;
- “Your communications are guaranteed to be private”;
- “You cannot be detained or arrested except in hot commission of a crime or by judicial order of the appropriate authorities”;
- “You cannot go to jail for debts”;
- “You have the right of free speech and free assembly”;
- “You are guaranteed the right to intimacy, liberty, and free communication”;
- “You can never be enslaved, not even if you agree to it”;
- “You have the right to decline to self-incriminate, and/or to testify against your spouse or children”;
- “You have the right to the protection of your health, environment, security, and economic interests; as well as to receive from the State accurate and true information, personal freedom of choice, and fair treatment; and the State shall defend these rights”;
- “You as an author, inventor or artist are entitled to the protection of the laws for your work product”;
- “You cannot be prosecuted or bothered for your opinions or actions (so long as they are legal)”; AND
- “You can petition the Supreme Court directly, to seek legal relief or to correct a manifest injustice.”
Collective Rights and Obligations (applicable to citizens)
- Any child born in Costa Rica is a citizen forever;
- “Any child found in Costa Rica without parents or legal guardian is automatically deemed a citizen”;
- “Any child born in Costa Rica outside of marriage is entitled to the same protections under the law as children born within a marriage, including name, child support and inheritance rights”;
- “All citizens of age are guaranteed a direct vote in elections”;
- “Citizens and residents have the right to access any State information held in any government departments, save only for officially designated State Secrets”;
- “No citizen can be denied entry to Costa Rica for any reason”;
- “Once a citizen, no power or law on earth can force you to leave Costa Rica territory”;
- “Citizens should obey the Constitution, and the laws, serve and defend the Homeland, and contribute to the Public Good.”
And my personal favorite:
- “Citizens can go to any point in the country or leave the borders if they wish, stay wherever they went for as long as they wish, and come back or not, their free choice.”
Did they leave anything out?!
Bottom line: many foreigners with homes here in Costa Rica question whether and/or when they should get residency. For many years, the advantages didn’t seem to be that great compared to perpetual tourist status. However, that may be changing; a lot of tourist visa holders would go to the local border every ninety days and turn right around, to gain another ninety days of tourist status here, but now the land borders are closed. And nobody knows what the new rules will eventually be.
The good news is you can become a Costa Rican citizen, and still keep your passport of origin. I, for example, am a citizen of both the US and Costa Rica. But to apply for citizenship, you first need to put in seven years of temporary and permanent residency.
At Pacific Coast Law, we help our regular clients with their residency applications, and can refer others to attorneys who offer that service to everyone.
In sum, it could look like a good idea to start your residency process asap, in order to get in line for citizenship. Applying for residency you can do, among other ways, based on a pension of $1,000 a month; an investment of $70,000 in a bank account for several years (to generate the monthly $2,500 income required for three years); or an investment of $200,000 in a home or business. Please click here for more details: http://www.pacificcoastlawcostarica.com/articles/getting-your-local-residency/